News / Middle East

Analysts Assess Role of Egyptian Intelligence Services in Crisis

Pro-government demonstrators on horses, camels, and horse-drawn carriages near Tahrir square in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 2, 2011.
Pro-government demonstrators on horses, camels, and horse-drawn carriages near Tahrir square in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 2, 2011.

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Gary Thomas

As the crisis in Egypt continues to escalate, the role of the security and intelligence forces becomes more critical. President Hosni Mubarak said he will not run for re-election, and he appointed intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman as vice president. The protesters, however, do not have a very favorable view of the intelligence services.

Larry Goodson, professor of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Army War College, said that when pro-Mubarak demonstrators clashed with anti-government protesters, it appeared to have been orchestrated by the government.

"When I saw that amazing footage of people on horseback and camelback galloping through Tahrir Square, and the tanks just sort of there and these guys coming through - that’s, like, crazy, and clearly suggested to me that the regime had deployed those people to attack what was essentially a peaceful, albeit unruly and unwanted by the regime, protest," said Goodson.

The government has denied any role in the clashes. But former intelligence analyst Owen Sirrs, who has written what many analysts consider to be the definitive history of Egyptian intelligence, believes the attacks probably were organized by the country’s new vice president and former intelligence chief, General Omar Suleiman.

In his capacity as head of the Egyptian intelligence service, he is also the de facto head of the Egyptian intelligence community, General Suleiman would definitely be involved in something like this," said Sirrs. "I have a feeling that these particular pro-Mubarak protesters would probably be affiliated in some way with the state security service, which is their domestic intelligence, quasi-FBI equivalent."

Mubarak named Suleiman as vice president on January 29. The president subsequently said he will not run for re-election, but he did not accede to the protesters’ demands that he step down immediately.

As head of the General Intelligence Service, Suleiman primarily was responsible for foreign intelligence matters, but also had some domestic security responsibilities. He also is a presidential confidante. In 2009, Foreign Policy magazine dubbed him the most powerful spy chief in the Arab world.

Sirrs said the Egyptian intelligence services’ poor human rights record and Suleiman’s closeness to President Mubarak make him unpalatable to the protesters.

"I don’t think that a lot of these people would make any distinction as to whether Omar Suleiman is focusing on foreign matters or internal security matters," said Sirrs. "In their minds, he is the one very public figure of the intelligence apparatus in Egypt. And of course, the security services in Egypt have a pretty gruesome reputation with regard to repression, consistent violations of human rights, torture. I mean, it’s all listed in the various human rights reports."

The General Intelligence Service has a long and close relationship with the U.S. CIA, say analysts, especially on counterterrorism matters.

Egypt’s domestic intelligence service, which is under the Interior Ministry, maintains a vast network of informants, ranging up to perhaps one million people by some estimates. Sirrs said the domestic intelligence service’s reputation is particularly bad for its treatment of dissidents.

"This particular service has a reputation for brutality, for rounding up dissidents, indentifying dissidents, bringing them to the prisons, torturing them in the prisons," said Sirrs. "And in some cases people die at the hands of the Mukhabarat agents."

Sirrs added, though, that the little-noticed military intelligence service may play the most crucial role in the Egyptian crisis. He noted that while it doesn’t directly suppress dissent, it does keep tabs on army personnel for their loyalty to the president and, perhaps more importantly, loyalty to the military leadership, which may be critical to any political move the army might make.

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